A New Era of Design - Customer Experiences with Soul

Simon Robinson | english

Human Factors is a scientific discipline which studies how people interact with gadgets, products and services. It takes a multidisciplinary approach, using a wide variety of research methods such as scenario design, questionnaires, observation, focus groups, experiments and ethnography. Twenty years ago while working at the Human Factors department at BT Laboratories, the research and development division of British Telecom, my colleagues and I created an approach we called ‘designing the customer experience’. At its heart was a programme of research into human needs. By bringing together Marketing and Human Factors with more radical perspectives such as semiotics and anthropology, creative and visualisation skills, and rapid technological advances, we generated an environment for user-centred innovation. We wanted to widen the vision of marketing professionals and provide them with a deeper and more holistic conception as to who their customers were as people.


When I graduated with a degree in psychology I was left with an uncomfortable and ill-defined sense of unease that cognitive psychology had not captured the essence of what it was to be fully human. The following two decades would lead me to a wide-ranging philosophical exploration of the concept of wholeness, which through the guidance of physicist and philosopher Henri Bortoft, would take me to the science of Goethe, the notion of being of Martin Heidegger, the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, and to a radically alternative interpretation of Plato. I came to appreciate just how much philosophy is not only about thinking and thoughts, but also about seeing and how changing our way of seeing can open up and disclose new worlds to us which were previously unseen and unknown.


I therefore could see that what was missing from our original ideas about designing the customer experience were concepts relating to a sense of wholeness, a sense of being, and a sense of the sensory/intuitive dimension of knowing as compared with the thinking/feeling dimension. What was also missing was any discussion around human values, as opposed to the value of a particular proposition. For this reason Maria Moraes Robinson and I decided to write Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter bringing together the dynamic way of seeing and comprehending wholeness with the five universal human values of peace, truth, love, right-action and non-violence which have appeared in scripture across all societies and creeds right-back to the Vedas of ancient India.


The five universal human values are the foundation of authenticity, agility and change, and relate to our understanding of humanity and what it means to be human. When these human values are in place, there is much less reliance on rules, bureaucracy and control, allowing organisations to become agile, resilient and sustainable, being better able to evolve as changes in the environment demand. With human values operating, we are better able to align ourselves behind a single vision, we are valued as human beings, and solutions can emerge naturally, as and when they are needed.


The concept Customer Experiences with Soul is based on our philosophy of Holonomics, and is a term I coined in order to express the essential way in which it is no longer enough for business to have a purpose, it also needs to be in touch with its soul, a soul which collectively expresses itself through each part. Soul is an elusive concept to capture, quantify and describe, but when it exists, we can sense, feel and intuit its presence. It has to be authentic, and it is not a quality which is added on to an existing experience as an additional component. The more values we have in our approach to our work and our businesses, and the greater human connection we have with our customers, whether it is direct contact with people in a beauty salon, or more distant contact by telephone in a service centre, or indirectly via an intermediary website, the more soul there will be in the customer experience.


Our work with Holonomics, which began in 2011, resonates extremely well with the desire of the Transnational Dialogues project to radically critique the present and imagine alternative futures. At its heart is an expansion of consciousness which brings together the intellectual-symbolic-rational consciousness predominant in business, with the artistic consciousness we find in Goethe’s approach to the study of phenomena such as colour and the metamorphosis of plants. The ability to develop a level of awareness which embraces these two seemingly disparate qualities of consciousness necessitates the need to go back ‘upstream’ into the act of seeing itself. When you go into the act of seeing, you develop a sensitivity to the lived experience of others, an extremely powerful ability which leads to comprehension, empathy and an understanding about the motives, actions and underlying causes of the outwardly perceived actions and expression of other people.


The Transnational Dialogues project Between Crowds and Empires seeks to understand the role artistic consciousness can play in the creation of new economic paradigms. Around the world there is a growing awareness of the destructive nature of current economic paradigms based on fragmentation, where powerful nations aim to dominate weaker nations rich in natural resources. The most enlightened businesses are now transforming their life-destroying business models to ones which are life-enhancing and which regenerate natural ecosystems and local economies. The concept of customer experiences with soul radically transforms our attention from a focus on individual people, products and services interactions, to the quality of experience of communities and the richness of the quality of their lives, in cities and in the countryside.


The journey from where we are now to developing customer experiences with soul starts with ourselves and our relationships with those immediately around us. If we can comprehend, understand and heal these broken and inauthentic relationships, then we can start to rediscover trust, values and what it means to genuinely share and co-create, whatever we are attempting to envision, innovate and bring into this world.


Gadamer was concerned with developing what he called “practical philosophy” or praxis which he related to “the totality of our practical life, all our human action and behaviour, the self-adaption of the human being as a whole in this world” as well as “one’s politics, political advising and consulting, and our passing of laws”. As members of humanity sharing this planet with our fellow human beings and all other forms of life, we need to develop ethics to guide us towards living together harmoniously. The great problem is that when we are born we do not receive instructions for acting ethically in the same way in which we can be given instructions for the use of a tool. Each one of us has to reach a comprehension about a given situation which means reaching an understanding with ourselves. We have to interpret our situations, and this is exactly what hermeneutics is, the art of reaching an understanding.


Reaching an understanding is not achieved by following a scientific methodology, we reach an understanding through conversation and dialogue. For this reason, I created a framework to lead conversations into an understanding of my conception of customer experiences with soul. The holonomic circle provides a framework for artists, entrepreneurs, designers and academics to explore together the quality of experience collectively in all its dimensions.


Figure 1: The Holonomic Circle, © Simon Robinson, 2016


At the centre is The Trinity, which is where authenticity is described as the maximum coherence between what a person says, what they mean, and what they do. The Trinity equally applies to any group, team, organisation, business, ecosystem, and can include cities, states, countries and indeed movements. Coherence is a quality which can run throughout whole organisations, both internally and externally, and across supply chains, business ecosystems the communities with which the person or entity interacts. We encounter counterfeit purposes when what the person or group says, what the person or group means and what the person or group does fail to coalesce as a unified whole.


The middle level of the holonomic circle helps us to think about those factors which underlie our tools and techniques, and to help us understand why they sometimes work and why at times they do not. This layer is not about telling you which tools and techniques to use. It is about exploring the underlying foundations behind the tools and techniques being used, and seeing which principles need to be operating in order that the tools and techniques to become more effective.


What is often missing from the application of tools and techniques is an appreciation of systems as a whole. In Holonomics, we take an approach whereby the whole is seen as coming to presence through the parts. The whole is not the sum of the parts, and neither is the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The whole is not a thing which acts as some kind of super-part, and neither can it be imposed on the parts. An authentic whole can only be encountered through the way in which it expresses itself through each part. If there is no conceptualisation of the whole system, and only a view on results, businesses having conflicting targets across competing departments, the organisation as a whole loses energy, it is not sustainable in the long term and therefore achieves worse results.


Gadamer explained hermeneutics as the art of reaching an understanding – either of some thing or with someone. This reaching of an understanding is always an interpretation, which happens in conversation, in dialogue. It is for this reason that the outer circle of the holonomic circle contains the transcendentals, a guiding set of interwoven ideas which we can use to explore and talk about our products and services, our customer experience.


Understanding the truth of experience requires curiosity, questioning and an ability to interweave the transcendentals into each other. If we are to really understand customer experiences, and understand how people are interpreting our products, services, brands, projects and creations, we need to explore the way in which language and reality belong together; how we participate in reality and interpret the world. The ‘truth’ is something we can never definitively arrive at, due to the limitations of language. But through authentic dialogue, humility and an expanded level of consciousness we can remain open to an ever changing vista of viewpoints and interpretations where beauty, truth and goodness all belong together within our experience.


Customer Experiences with Soul disclose new ways of being in the world. While technology is introducing us to new ways of experiencing the world through mass connectivity and interactions, mass production has led to an obsession with efficiency, seeing everything – including people – as resources which must be optimised. A crafts person such as a carpenter dedicates their life to learning how to work with wood, and the level of mastery is reached when they start to see things that people without those skills are unable to see. They become someone who inhabits a world differently.


A customer experience with soul is a sacred experience which honours what it is to be human in our world. Entrepreneurs of the future will be those who disclose new ways of being in the world, which reconnect us to the sacred.


Simon Robinson is the co-founder of Holonomics Education and the co-author of Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. He is a Harvard Business Review author and editor of the blog www.transitionconsciousness.org.

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